Image Source: Disney
Today, the Black Panther character carries quite a fair amount of political weight. He's the king and protector of an advanced African nation. He's the first black superhero to land a solo Marvel movie, which features a predominantly black cast and is released during Black History Month. It's not far-fetched to connect T'Challa with the real Black Panther Party, a revolutionary socialist organization founded in the late '60s. In fact, early promotional material for the movie references an early photograph from the political party. It seems safe to assume that the party preceded the Marvel character, right? Well, the history is more complicated than one might expect.
In July 1966, we meet Black Panther in Fantastic Four, issue No. 52. He's an extraordinary character for his time, a black superhero from a technologically advanced African country who's juxtaposed against the realities of racial tensions in 1966. (This is around the time of the civil rights movement, after all.) The Black Panther Party was founded in October 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as a group with armed members to protect black neighborhoods against police brutality. At this point, you might be wondering if the comic, in fact, came before the party. Let's pause for a moment.
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Around the same time that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were storyboarding Black Panther, the black citizens and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee of Lowndes County, AL, adopted the black panther as the mascot for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in 1965. The LCFO's black panther stood in opposition to the white rooster of the Democratic Party, which had then touted values of white supremacy. Paying homage to the LCFO, the radical Black Panther Party would later use the same symbol for its cause.
Lee maintains that he took inspiration for Black Panther after a pulp fiction adventure hero with a sidekick that's a black panther, just sometime after Kirby pitched the idea of a black superhero called Coal Tiger. The pair were not particularly thrilled about the political affiliations with the character in the early '70s. They wanted to distance the character from the party because of the ongoing political tension of the time.
Fast-forward to Fantastic Four, No. 119, in 1972. Kirby and Lee now called T'Challa "the Black Leopard," just to remove speculated connections with the political party. Obviously, the name didn't stick. Marvel writers returned to the character's original name and continued to develop him.
Whether or not Lee was thinking of the Black Panther Party then, it would be remiss to erase the movie's social and political importance today. Black Panther is a movie for the books, with the way that it highlights and uplifts representation.